Chapter 24

Deane laughed his demented laugh. “Art is deception. Didn’t you know that? The better the art, the better the deception.”

In the still air of a hotel room in Berkeley, Marley Highland lay back on the stiff bed and prepared himself for battle. Ulysses Pope had commissioned him to become the world’s greatest expert on the Ferrier Dragon Rug and to be prepared to authenticate or debunk a rug claiming to be the Ferrier rug that, it was said, would soon surface on the West Coast.

To that end, Highland had come to Berkeley, not only to be on the West Coast, but because the library at the University of California in Berkeley was known to have a copy of the old Martin book, published in 1908. He had wanted to study the work that had introduced the concept of the Ferrier Rug to the world and which still held the best discussion of it.

It was missing. A library staff-member told him that it had been inventoried in January but had been reported missing by April. There was no record of its having been checked out. Somehow the enormous book—as big as the top of an average-sized coffee table—had been spirited out of the library.

“Who would steal it?” Highland asked himself as he lay in the gloomy hotel room. But he believed that he knew: A small man with a big voice; someone whom he suspected of having already faked at least two rugs that were now displayed at the National Carpet Museum in Washington, D.C.; someone who had $1,000,000 to gain by faking the Ferrier Dragon Rug.

Highland prepared himself to wage war with the mysterious man who was said to speak the Queen’s English. It would be a battle of wits, and he looked forward to the showdown.


Highland had been born a skeptic and had trained as an archeologist. Little wonder, then, that he had made a name in his field by revealing archeological fakes. He loved to debunk. He lived to expose.

Highland had made his reputation by impugning the honesty of a respected colleague forty years his senior, named Thad Jones, who had been famous for “discovering” an Anatolian-based, pre-historic cult of earth-goddess worshippers. Jones’s discovery had been one of those lucky accidents. Traveling alone in the Anatolian countryside, he had stumbled on a hidden cave, and in it he had found a series of elaborate paintings on its walls. They depicted men bowing before powerful females with hands on hips. The female figures appeared to wear skirts, and Jones saw elements in them that suggested heavy breasts and fertile loins. Earth goddesses.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jones had run out of film and was unable to make a photographic recording of this phenomenal find. Luckily, though, he had brought along a sketchpad and colored pencils, and he did a remarkable job of illustrating what he saw. What he saw was amazingly like what can still be found in nearly any Turkish kilim: skirts, arms on hips, breasts, loins.

The trouble is that Jones was better at recording what he saw than where he saw it. He could never again find the cave, nor could any of his followers, mostly women, many of whom spent their vacations tromping all over the Turkish countryside looking for it.

Some years later, reviewing Dr. Jones’s claims about earth goddesses, Highland was skeptical, and he said so in a prestigious academic journal. For he had discovered that the same terrible luck had befallen Jones on a previous occasion, thirty years before his earth-goddess find. He had made another amazing discovery, which eventually became the topic of his Ph.D thesis, and this time, too, he had been without witnesses and had found himself without a camera and had had to sketch what he had discovered the best he could. Highland had pointed out that that no doubt explained why Jones had thereafter been careful to carry along a sketchpad, but it hardly explained why he had not learned to be a little more careful about carrying photographic equipment. Anyway, Jones had lost the site of that find, too. So in both cases he was the only witness to his discoveries. Moreover, Highland demonstrated pretty convincingly that the figure of the hands-on-hip earth goddess found in Jones’s drawings and in Turkish kilims resembled the Anatolian dung beetle at least as much as it did a goddess. In short, Highland really fried Jones, who soon retired. Highland’s reputation as a debunker was made.

Hence it was he whom Ulysses Pope engaged to judge the age and authenticity of an Oriental rug that seemed about ready to surface.

Well, he now knew the small man’s name, and it wasn’t Jake, as Holden what’s-his-name had suggested. (In fact that young rug dealer had been no help at all, plus he wouldn’t budge on the price of his Kazak. “A darned fine rug,” Highland thought. “Well, I’ll grind him a little harder.”) Other dealers had been much more useful. They all knew exactly whom he was talking about when he inquired about the small man who spoke the Queen’s English. Avery Deane. Deane had snooped around every rug store in Berkeley and San Francisco, and everyone knew him. Or, rather, they knew his name but nothing else about him. Only that he frequented their shops, knew his stuff about old rugs, and that he had been at the talk that Ulysses Pope had given about himself.

“He was at a talk of Pope’s?”

“Yes, he was in the audience. In fact, I hear that he joined the Ali Babas just like the rest of us. And then he dropped out like we all did.”

“You joined and then dropped out?”

“We all did. Except for Sarah Atwood. She didn’t drop out, but that’s because she’s trying to butter up the old codger so the Museum will get the Pope collection.”

“But, anyway, where is this fellow Deane from? England?”

“Could be. That or maybe anywhere in the British Empire, if you know what I mean. I’ve never heard him say. But he sounds like the BBC. Or the Queen Mum. Crazy son of a bitch, though.”

“What do you mean?”

They all had stories about his shouting and carrying-on. But no one knew much about him. Highland decided to frequent rug stores in the hope of running into him.

Which is what happened. He walked into Holden Carter’s showroom one day and was startled to hear angry shouting. His first impulse was to duck out quickly before a fight broke out. “Holden,” a man inside the showroom yelled, “it’s a fake! A fraud! It’s nothing but a copy!” Highland had found his man; he was certain of it. He was hearing the biggest voice ever, the voice of a circus ring-master, a general calling his troops to battle, a champion auctioneer. He was looking at a small, good-looking man with a sour expression on his face, standing beside the store’s proprietor and frowning down on an Oriental rug spread on the floor between them.

“It’s a good looking rug, Avery. I don’t understand why you’re so harsh about it,” Holden argued.

“It is exactly what it appears to be: a new rug that somebody distressed to make it look old. But, of course, it doesn’t look old at all. It looks like a new rug that is supposed to look old. That’s why I’m hard on the rug. There is no mystery in it. There is no artifice, no art, no real deception.”

Highland wandered over to where the two were arguing and stared down at the victim of all this abuse, a new Turkish version of an old Bijar. They looked up at him and made way for the newcomer. The rug was quite attractive, Highland thought. He was surprised that a new rug could look so good. “Does any of that matter?” he asked. “I mean, it’s either a good rug or it isn’t, right? If it looks good and it’s made from good materials, why then it is good, isn’t it? Does it matter if it’s a reproduction?”

Deane laughed. “Strange that you should take that position—you, an archeologist, a lover of antiquities.”

Highland was flattered. The fellow recognized him. Still, he said to Deane, “Strange that you should take a stand against fakes.”

At that, Deane laughed boisterously. Highland imagined that he too was pleased to have been recognized, even if that meant being recognized as a forger of rugs. “Oh, I respect anything that is well done,” Deane said brightly. “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. But this rug,” (he pointed at the piece that lay on the floor at their feet, “is neither as good as the rug it’s a copy of nor is it an honest new rug. Distressed to death! It’s a brand new VW with 130,000 miles on it.”

“But what if it were as good as what it is a copy of? Like those two Caucasian rugs in the Carpet Museum?”

“Oh, them.” Deane was dismissive. “One can do better.”

“That’s frightening.”

Deane laughed. “Not at all,” he said. “It means that the art of making great rugs is still alive.”

“And in the hands of criminals.”

“Well. That depends on how good it is, doesn’t it? If it’s a work of art then it wasn’t made by a criminal; it was made by an artist.” Deane looked like an artist, Highland thought, with his silk scarf and tweed beret and a cracked look on his face—a look at once of delight and annoyance.

“Made for criminal intent.”

“To make money? Even artists need to live.”

“Made with the intent to defraud.”

“Ah, but intent is a complex matter, isn’t it? I mean, even someone intending to defraud may have other intentions as well. To please, for instance. Or to make the best whatever-it-is the world has ever seen. Or to express himself.”

“And the two Caucasian rugs in the Carpet Museum?”

“Oh, I would have to say they were done by a learner. So you could say they are mere copies. But then, perhaps their maker not only intended to deceive but also intended to learn, to practice, to perfect. At least they’re good, unlike this mess.” Deane pointed at the Turkish “Bijar.” “Now there’s a criminal, whoever made this sad thing.” Highland still thought it looked good.

“You’re just playing with words,” he said. “Fraud is fraud; deception is deception.” He walked over to where the Kazak which he still hoped to buy at a good price from Holden what’s-his-name was mounted on a wall. “Now this is a work of art, and I don’t believe that its weaver deceived anybody, nor did she try to. The rug is what it is. It doesn’t pose as something it is not. For instance, it does not pass itself off as a hundred years older than it really is.”

“You’re right! It is what it is. It’s a Bentley. A Rolls! But it’s not a work of art. It is a work of craft, just like a Bentley. Our honest weaver crafted it beautifully. But art it is not. And do you know why? Because it does not deceive.”

“Oh please!”

Deane laughed his demented laugh. “Art is deception. Didn’t you know that? The better the deception, the better the art. The swelling sounds of violins and cellos makes us feel like something sad has happened, and a sounding trumpet can make a weak man believe he’s a hero. A poet can make us believe we are hearing the truth, when in fact we are hearing no more than his opinion. Now that’s art.”

Highland smiled. He rather liked this strange fellow who at least had ideas. “Well, I see that I’m not going to change your mind, but, still, I find it worthwhile to distinguish between the genuine and the fake, between the hundred-year-old rug and the one that seems to be a hundred years old but is new.”

Avery Deane was no longer smiling. “Congratulations,” he said dryly. “You will spend your life searching out objects that are transparent fakes and that have no merit. Now there’s a wasted life. While some seek out beauty and others create beauty, you make your livelihood and your name in the world by pursuing the ugly. You will be happy only if it is said about you that ‘he has an unerring nose for the false, the ugly.’ And on your deathbed you will gloat that you have surrounded yourself with more would-be art than anyone who has ever lived.”

Marley Highland had stopped smiling, too. He felt as if this wild spirit had just cursed him. Not sworn at him, but cursed him—as if Deane had commended his soul to hell. Though Highland believed in neither the soul nor in damnation, still he felt a deep chill as the little man turned away from him and scuttled away like a crab.

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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